Sunday, May 29, 2005

Do Sesquicentenarians Really Exist?

The search engine of HeritageQuest Online allows one to search for heads of household by age range for the 1860-1930 censuses. This seems a useful but unremarkable feature, until one notices that the range of possible ages extends to "141-150." A search using just this parameter produces a list of fourteen individuals above the age of 140, four of whom had reached the 150 year mark.

Of course, none of these people ever approached 140 years. Most of the entries are the result of indexing errors, probably due to a slip of the finger while typing. Ruth Frederickson, living in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in 1910, was 15, not 145. In other cases, the age was simply difficult to read. John Robbins of Madison, Ohio, appears to have been 150 years old in 1920, but the second digit is uncertain. A check of previous censuses shows that his true age was probably 100.

In some cases, the indexed age is correctly transcribed. Demetria Medina y Calderón de Allende of Párajos, Puerto Rico, is clearly shown to be 150 years of age in 1920, but was 80 years of age in 1910. Charles Smith—a resident of Egg Harbor, N. J.—was 143 in 1920, but a far more reasonable 34 in 1910. Here the errors lie, not with the indexer, but with the enumerator. It was perhaps the enumerator of Ward 4 in Worcester, Mass., who added additional marks to the ages of several individuals in 1870—in one case, making Joseph Reidel 331 years old, and his wife Alice 291.

The lesson: Be aware of the limitations of both censuses and census indexes.

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